Monday, February 5, 2018

Anna Müller's "If the Walls Could Speak"

Anna Müller is assistant professor of history and Frank and Mary Padzieski Endowed Professor in Polish/Polish American/Eastern European Studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. She was formerly a curator at the Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk, Poland.

Müller applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, If the Walls Could Speak: Inside a Women's Prison in Communist Poland, and reported the following:
Page 99 is the finale of the story about the interrogations of three extraordinary Polish women faced imprisonment and potential death for their political involvement during and after WWII. Their youth and age; their love for men and cause; their fears and insatiable need for action were put on trial, which was about life and death, but also about their identity. The questions that the interrogators as well as the women themselves had to unravel were not what they did and how they broke the law, but who they were. Traitors? Loving, but confused women? Perhaps violent conspirators? Who were these women when they were put on trial, and who were they when they emerged from it?

For many reasons the interrogations are about thresholds:

It was a threshold for these women, who, while facing interrogation officers, were facing a fear of physical violence, a fear of the unknown, and a fear that the rest of their lives hung on this one moment (the interrogations). But it was also a threshold when they understood how important it is to insist on their own version of the story, even if that meant reconfiguring it over and over again.

It was a threshold for me as a historian, as I stepped into the web of interrogation transcripts. Created under duress, interrogation protocols provide their readers only with a blurred image of reality, yet these shadows are the only means through which the reality locked in the four walls of a prison cell can be reached.

It was a threshold for me as an author, as I tried to disentangle these lives and understand the women who never ceased to amaze me; from everything that happened to them, they seemed to emerge stronger and more insistent on the powerful lessons and values that they took from prison. How much is this story about them and how much about me searching for strength and values in the modern world?

After crossing that threshold, what was left for the prisoners were long months and years in a prison cell. Four walls. Frozen time and space. They still had fears, but they no longer lived in fear of not knowing the length of their sentences. Replacing this was a mixture of boredom and desperation, and intensely intoxicating moments of clarity. Emptiness is never bare.
Learn more about If the Walls Could Speak at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue